CW: nudity, images of a sexual nature.
Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries finds itself caught between two resonating worlds: on one hand, the appreciation of art, the understanding of metaphor, the curiosity and fascination that has always accompanied finds made in the lost city, as intertwined as its legacy has been with both love (and by extension, life) and death. On the other, those who observe the famous Dionysian frescoes within the house cannot help but feel a gut-deep pull towards, if not discomfort, then unease, the awareness that we are looking in upon something that we perhaps should not be seeing – whether it is because we have misunderstood it, or because it is so voraciously intimate, we cannot help but feel like it is not our place to be gawking.
Pompeii is, after all, a city built on mystery: through the horror of the body casts, we are allowed to peer into moments we usually would not consider ourselves privy to – the last moments of a human life. Through its wondrous architecture, wall decorations, and artifacts we are allowed a look into moments we usually think of as lost forever, those of ancient life. It is a combination that is, in and on itself, intoxicating, and nowhere else is this clearer than in the way the Dionysian frescoes of the Villa have captured our collective imagination. For Dionysus and his retinue are the Other, the external, the ones we cannot fully understand for good, hailing from the mysterious East shrouded in ivy branches and brandishing the thyrsus. As Albert Henrichs defines him: “[T]he god … should himself adopt a fluid and changeable identity based on disguise, on transformation, and on the simultaneous presence of opposite characteristics.” Here, Henrichs is talking about the modern perception of Dionysus, the sight of a god unseen, caught between the quest for an identity and the labels that those who have studied him have decided to saddle him with. At the end of the day, Dionysus is another, he is separate. In our collective imagination, he inhabits the fringes of society.
My aim with this article is to crawl through those fringes and yank Dionysus back down to us mortals, bring him to ground level, and force us to see him in all his million fractured masks – faces that have been seen as costume instead of the disjointed, yet still coherent, flesh that they are. I do so by bringing us face-to-face with another Other that was demonized, cast out, branded as guilty.
Visual AIDS is a collective of artists that, starting in 1988, set out to raise awareness regarding HIV/AIDS and help HIV-positive artists survive and be able to showcase their work. Their manifesto reads: “Our work affirms the visibility, dignity and rights of people living with HIV and AIDS”. By reclaiming their identity and turning it into art, the members of Visual AIDS attempt to reshape the image that Kylo Patrick Hart, in his discussion of how the media has represented HIV-positive individuals over the years, has so aptly identified as participating in an idea of “Otherness”. The HIV-positive person, especially if already in the advanced stages of AIDS, is seen as contagious, deviant, depraved – perhaps even as deserving of the illness that they are grappling with. But in Visual AIDS’ works, the sick person can once more gain control of their narrative. It is still body, illness, blood, and suffering – but elevated and painted as one’s own rather than confined to a hyper-medicalised world.
The shameful brand of illness that others had inflicted is thus lifted, revealing the person underneath in all its myriad of flecks of dust and light, positives, and negatives, healthy and ill and everything in between: in short, as human. The art of Visual AIDS deals with many things: it deals with helplessness. It deals with anxiety. It brings the audience face to face with what they may perhaps call shameful. A clear example of this is David C. Dashiell’s artwork Queer Mysteries, the bright red lifted directly from the millennia-old walls of Pompeii now backdrop to a scene of BDSM. In short, they make the invisible visible, and force the audience to confront the fact that these aspects were invisible in the first place.
But why Dionysus? Why Visual AIDS? And why, of all representations of the god and his retinue, look at the enigmatic frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries? The answer can perhaps be found in Bettina Bergman’s immersive analysis of the history, conservation, and interpretation of the frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries. As Bergmann expertly illustrates, the Villa itself has become a micro-cosmos of both strangeness and charm. On the one hand, this is due to the nature of the frescoes; their interpretation, all things considered, is still mostly obscure. But I would argue that this is also due to the phenomenon Henrichs discusses: that regardless of how Dionysus is represented, he will always be seen as perfectly balanced between one world and the next. In a similar fashion, the art of Visual AIDS also plays at being an acrobat, existing between humanity and their traumatic Othering. One line stands out in Bergmann’s essay:
The Villa of the Mysteries […] takes on a larger, timeless quality, serving as an allegory of the frailty of physical existence and the ephemerality of presence.
And, like Bergmann and Henrichs’ Dionysus, the reclaimed Otherness of Visual AIDS invites the visitor to question what exactly it means to be Other(ed), and where we, as modern viewers, belong within it.
Bergmann speaks at length of the sexual charge of the frescoes: she fixates on the feminine, the otherworldly, the idea of female sexuality as the distinguishing and Othering feature of the paintings. In her analysis of the art, she sees the figure of the winged woman brandishing a whip as emblematic: it is the symbol of the ‘individual pursuit [which] projects new fantasies and new realities’. Sex is, now more than ever, mysterious and taboo: it was even more taboo in the Victorian days – and, as far as female sexuality is concerned, it may as well have been simply invisible. As such, seeing women engaged in what could be interpreted as sexually explicit acts threw scholars and archaeologists off-kilter. It contributed, perhaps emblematically, to the perception of Dionysus and the Maenads as out of this world. “Normal” people do not kneel whilst winged girls whip them into submission.
Similarly, “normal” people do not engage in hardcore BDSM with green aliens. And yet, in David C. Dashiell’s Queer Mysteries that is exactly what is happening: naked men and women, their bodies exposed and vulnerable, kneel in various positions as green and light purple aliens perform various sadomasochistic actions on them. Bergmann calls Dashiell’s (who passed away due to HIV-related complications in 1993) work a “cross-gender reconstruction” of the Pompeian frescoes, and she is quite right. On Dashiell’s website, the connection between the two works of art is explicitly stated and, to the keen eye, the visual correspondences (right down to certain positions) can be quickly spotted. Dashiell had thus already identified how Dionysus and HIV-positive individuals could relate to each other and perhaps even converse in the same language.
Dionysus has been seen as a god of extremes, of Otherness brought to light despite mankind’s stark insistence; a god of wine and sexual ambiguity, dressed in feminine clothing, sporting feminine hairstyles, caught between the West and Orient. He is complex and to this day immensely difficult to pinpoint. Even Henrich’s essay, which attempts to give some unity to the god’s interpretation, understands the underlying nature of Dionysus but can never fully articulate it, or for that matter find it in its entirety.
The Dionysus of the Villa of the Mysteries, along with his retinue of weird, wondrous creatures, has been at the centre of scholarship, debate, and reflection ever since he was first brought to light. Embarrassing and shameful, and therefore fascinatingly forbidden, he has slowly but surely contributed to shaping the extant narrative. Hence, one could argue that he is emblematic of the problems Henrichs attempts to deconstruct. His Otherness is interpreted and extrapolated entirely through image, and this image has played its part well; bizarre and fascinating, the frescoes of the Villa to this day confront us viewers with a world we do not feel we are fully part of.
Through reclamation, Visual AIDS confronts us with the truth of why Dionysus has been Othered. By taking him into their fold, like Queer Mysteries has done, they show the truth of it, and the question they ask us is the same: what does it mean to be deviant?
Written by Justin Biggi
Bergmann, Bettina. “Seeing women in the Villa of the Mysteries. A modern excavation of the Dionysiac murals.” In Antiquity recovered. The legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Eds. Victoria Gardner and Jon L. Seydl, 231-269. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2007.
Dashiell, David Cannon. “Home.” http://www.davidcannondashiell.com/.
Hart, Kylo-Patrick R. The AIDS Movie: Representing a Pandemic in Film and Television. Binghamton, USA: The Haworth Press, Inc., 2000.
Henrichs, Albert. “He has A God in Him: Human and Divine in Dionysus”. In Masks of Dionysus. Eds. Thomas H. Carpenter and Christopher A. Pharaone, 13-43. New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.
Visual AIDS. “ARTS. AIDS. ACTION.” https://www.visualaids.org/about.
Image: Dionysian frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries. i.Italy (2015).